Sunday, 10 August 2008

Casting the net beyond the lagoon

Overfishing in the lagoons of Mauritius and Rodrigues has a destructive effect on the coral reef and the marine life it harbours. To increase the incomes of small-scale fishers and relieve pressure on depleted marine resources, the IFAD-funded Rural Diversification Programme has encouraged fishers to give up lagoon fishing.

Policy framework for managing fisheries resources

Because of the depletion of lagoon fish stock, the fisheries sector faces a number of challenges. To meet these challenges the Mauritian fisheries sector is striving to put in place a policy framework for sustainable management of fisheries resources.

The authorities provide support to fishers who fish in the open sea outside the lagoon and encourage them to engage in agriculture and other income-generating activities. The authorities are also exploring alternative options such as aquaculture.

The island of Rodrigues has about 1,900 registered fishers. "Seventy per cent of the registered fishers are real fishers," says Jacques Davis, Fisheries Department Head in Rodrigues. "We need to encourage fishers to find alternative sources of income."

"Mauritius Island has 2,300 fishers, of which 1,500 are active off-lagoon fishers," says Anand Venkatasami, Principal Fisheries Officer.

"The challenge ahead is significant. Most of the fishers have been in the fishing business for generations and are reluctant to change,” says Davis.

"We are trying to find alternative solutions. Recently, the Fisheries Commission of Rodrigues undertook a feasibility study to explore the potential of aquaculture,” Davis adds.

Aquaculture is the farming of fresh and salt water organisms such as molluscs, crustaceans and aquatic plants under controlled conditions. It is the so-called agriculture of oceans.

"It looks like sea cucumbers and seaweed are two viable candidates for aquaculture," says Davis.

"Early in August we are fielding a mission to Madagascar to learn more about seaweed technology and to explore a possible collaboration with our Malagasy colleagues," says Davis.

Fish aggregating devices for good ocean fishing

The IFAD-supported Rural Diversification Programme has financed several fish aggregating devices (FADs) to assist small-scale fishers when they fish in deeper seas beyond the lagoon. FADs are man-made devices that attract ocean fish such as tuna.

The installation of the devices has encouraged fishers to leave the lagoon and convert to FAD fishing in the open sea. The programme provided capacity-building and training for fishers in off-lagoon fishing techniques, boat handling and safety measures.

"The training helped fishers make the transition from lagoon net fishing to fishing in the open sea," says Venkatasami. "As a result, in Mauritius there are now only 200 lagoon net fishers."

The FADs are installed 12 kilometres from the shore and are relatively close to one another. "The fishers usually go to the closest FADs and they use mobile phones to communicate with one another, " says Venkatasami.

The fishing village of Tamarin on the western coast of Mauritius has about 200 FAD fishers who fish in the vicinity of four FADs. Most of them are second generation fishers and they have their own boats, which they were able to purchase by taking out loans.

"We used to do net fishing in the lagoon, but with the installation of FADs we've moved to off-lagoon fishing," says Patrick Marrison, president of Albion, an association of fishing villages.

"When we fished in the lagoon our catch was between 7 and 15 kilograms. With FAD fishing our catch ranges between 100 and 200 kilograms."

"We fish during the summer months, which go from November through April. Usually we fish 20 days a month," says Manuel Ricot, a fisher in Tamarin.

"Thanks to FAD fishing our catch is better in terms of both quality and quantity and we are able to make more money," Marrison says. The first thing the Tamarin fishers did with their increased income was to invest in building more solid homes to protect their families against cyclones.

The many challenges that fishers face include the effects of pollution, climate change, bad weather, depleting fish stock, unregulated fishing practices and recreational fishing. FAD fishers face additional challenges such as the risk that big vessels and trawlers may damage FADs when passing over them, or that a FAD may be lost when a fisher's line cuts the device’s anchor line.

"When FADs are damaged, we have to wait for the authorities to repair or install new ones," says Marrison. "We would like to learn how to repair them ourselves so that we do not lose any fishing time."

Live baits: a local innovation

A typical day for the Tamarin fishers starts at 3 a.m. when they set off for the open sea, with two or three fishers in each boat. They fish until 3 or 4 p.m. And they have increased their daily catch thanks to their innovative method of catching and preserving live bait.

"We know that to catch larger fish it is important to use live bait," says Manuel. "We cannot buy live bait, so we had to find a way of farming it ourselves."

The members of the community devised an innovative way of catching and storing live bait. The fishers catch the bait while they are on their way home in the afternoon, and they keep the bait in special containers in the sea.

"In this way, the next morning we have live bait ready for our next fishing expedition," says Manuel.

Access to markets

Like most of the other fishing communities in Mauritius, the Tamarin community does not have direct access to the market. And the fishers' boats are not equipped to preserve fish on board.

As a result the fishers are forced to sell their daily catch to the middleman, or buyant.

"The middleman buys a kilogram of fish for 70 Rps and then sells it for 140 Rps," says Manuel.

"Our boats are 6 to 8 metres long and they are not big enough to accommodate an icebox or to be equipped for other types of preservation techniques," he says.

"So we have no way of preserving our catch and are forced to sell the entire catch to the middleman.

"We cannot even sell directly to hotels, because the hotels want a continuous and consistent supply," says Manuel. "So we are forced to deal with the buyant."

The members of the Tamarin fishing community are not organized into an association or cooperative, and they do not have direct access to the market. They are trapped in the net of the middleman.

If they could sell to a cooperative at a fixed price or, even better, if they could sell directly to consumers, they could increase their income significantly.

Sailing in the rough seas of rising fuel prices

Rising fuel prices have changed the behaviour of the members of the Tamarin fishing community. Now the fishers rarely go out during the winter months.

"With the rising price of fuel, we cannot risk going out and coming back empty-handed," says fisher Theo Hingal. "During the summer months we try to catch enough so that we can afford not to fish in the winter."

Fuel prices have more than doubled in the last eight months. "Eight months ago, we paid from 800 to 1,200 Rps for petrol, and now we pay from 1,500 to 1,800 Rps," says Hingal.

"We cannot afford to raise the price of our catch, because during the summer months there is far too much competition," says Theo. "If we increase our prices, on a good day we risk being left with 200 kilograms of fish on our hands!"

To respond to rising fuel prices and allow fishers to cut fuel costs, the Ministry of Agro-industry and Fisheries is encouraging fishers to use sail on their boats.

Looking forward to a brighter future

Tamarin and the other fishing communities in Mauritius look forward to implementation of the newly approved Marine and Agricultural Resources Support (MARS) programme funded by IFAD.

This programme will introduce sustainable marine resource management and help poor households in coastal communities establish profitable enterprises that do not put the resource base at risk. It will investigate and develop alternative activities such as small-scale aquaculture.

The programme will introduce the fishers to the value chain concept and build their capacity for business management so that they can cast their net beyond the buyant, or middleman.

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